Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Grill Fire

I started drinking this afternoon at 12:30. And later, I'll probably have cake. And I'm okay with that, because this morning, I almost died. Now, I'm going to tell you a story about how my roommate Jessie saved my life, but it's not going to be one of those trite "Near death experience stories" because I already have one of those. And it's not going to be one of those "carpe diem" stories or "don't go one more day without telling that one person you love them" stories because, really, we've all seen Dead Poets' Society and if you are seriously holding back from expressing love, then you have some issues that are not going to be solved by reading an email. But this email is going to make a difference in your life. Maybe. And I am going to tell you about why I would make a great 18th century farm wife.

Now, I want to start off by telling you that two minutes after I woke up at 6am this morning, my roommate Jessie saved my life. But to tell the story right, I have to back up a bit.

I have a new job.

For those of you who don't know: I have a new job. I'm still working at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena, but my new job is in the Promotions department where I get to host events for authors to come in to discuss and sign their books. Usually the events are pretty fun and interesting. Mystery writers, or authors of childrens' series, sometimes big name authors like David Sedaris or Salman Rushdie....we get them all...and last night we had a panel of writers from a local writing group. Amateurs, mostly. Like me. And it was terrible. I spent a large part of the event text messaging my sister from the back row.

Me: "Shoot me now."
5 minutes later: "Or slit my throat, whichever is faster"

Most of the authors really were awful. They talked about divorce, depression, war, wrote bad explicit poetry...almost all semi-autobiographical first person narratives...and really, I think it's silly to mis-label group therapy as a writers' club. It's not fair to the rest of us who expected interesting literature.

I headed home. Weary from an afternoon of bad literature and no vodka. As worn out as I was, I still looked forward to coming home to a house full of people. Our weekly Sunday dinner was on, and in full force. There were new friends and old friends and people I just call friends because it's easier than saying we pretend to dislike one another. I'd sent out a text earlier in the day letting people know to bring something to BBQ… so when I got home at 8:30, the grill was on and the kabobs were almost ready and twenty people were prepared to eat.

Four hours later, the last guest had departed and I was sound asleep in my bed. Still fully clothed in my black dress complete with earrings. I may have still been wearing my shoes.

I woke up to a faraway sound. Mmmm…rain. I rolled over in bed and glanced at the sky. Gray. Comfort. Sleep again.

But the noise outside my window kept growing, and it wasn’t a familiar rain sound. Reluctantly, I roused myself up again. Hail? I tried to focus my eyes on the sky…tried to adjust the way you do when you’re looking at one of those magic eye pictures where you cross your eyes and you see a penguin riding a motorcycle. I searched the sky for the hail I heard on the porch, tried to find the definition of clouds and the shadows between them. Brushing the sleep from my eyes, I looked again. The sky was still gray, but clear, not overcast from hail or rain or clouds, but pale from no sun. Confusion kept me awake for a moment or two, but I wanted so badly to fall back into that perfect pocket of blankets still warm from sleep.

Looking up and out my window I saw a red glow, more intense than sunrise, reflected on the eve above. Suddenly, pieces started falling into place. I shot up onto my knees and looked at the porch below. The red glow wasn’t sunrise, but fire. And the sound that woke me up wasn’t hail or rain, but the plastic bits of our grill boiling and popping in the heat.

The next few seconds were fueled kindly by a shot of adrenaline …because 6am has never been kind to me.

I hurdled out of my bed, opened the door to my room and screamed to wake up my roommate “JESSIE! FIRE!” Her response, as she tumbled down the stairs “I KNOW!” was punctuated immediately by a nice solid “SHIT!”

I’m pretty sure that’s about when our roommate Lexi woke up, but I was back in my room, buried in my closet looking for a suitable blanket to smother the fire. As I dug around, I started trying to calculate how much each second of my search would cost us. I threw one shoe aside as I imagined the destruction below, “There goes my basil plant!” some more popping outside and I tossed a dirty shirt over my shoulder, “That has to be the umbrella over the patio table. Dammit, that was new!” Finally, I found a large green microfiber blanket my sister had given me for Christmas a few years ago.

“Yes, this is perfect” I thought in relief, “If I wet this, it should be heavy enough to put out the fire.”

With the blanket bunched up in my arms, I skidded down the stairs. Jessie had opened the front door, but I was too focused on getting to the fire to wonder what she was doing. I could see the grill from the living room through the sliding glass door and the scene was terrible in its beauty. Red flames longer than my arms flirted with the overhanging limbs of a dry tree from the neighbors’ back yard. Glowing bits of melting plastic knobs dripped and dropped themselves around the charred propane tank below. Left over bratwurst grease popped as it spilled onto the patio and boiled away the paint on the fiberglass floor. The wheels were, at this point, little more than rubber puddles. It took me about one second to run from the stairs to the door leading out to the deck. It took Jessie about half a second to go the same distance…damn her long legs!

Turning to Jessie, I outlined to her my flawless plan: “Okay, I’m going to go warn the neighbors and then throw this blanket over the flames.”

At this point, I have to pause and applaud Jessie for her wherewithal and practicality at such a rude hour for a household fire. She looked at me calmly, assessed my plan and very matter-of-factly dismissed it.

“No. No you won’t. Let’s try this first.” and she pulled the pin out of the fire extinguisher in her hands. Jessie can usually be described using the word “statuesque” because of her height and imperturbable countenance. But in that fraction of a second she looked positively intrepid. In about two swift movements, the pin was out, the screen door opened, and the fire was out in a cloud of white fire extinguishing glory! Go America! I felt a surge of patriotism and love for the genius who thought to himself (or herself) “YES! We shall package and distribute metal containers full of a pressurized white powdery substance and this will indeed save lives! Methinks it will but save our country. Nay! Mayhaps it shall yet save civilization as we know it! Yea verily!”

I’m not sure why I imagined that person saying “yea verily” especially with an exclamation point following it…but that was the picture in my brain. And there was much rejoicing.

Jessie and I regarded the near-cataclysmic disaster we had avoided. And we stood there for a few more seconds while our adrenaline highs started to fade…and we collapsed. I fell onto the couch, still clinging to the blanket, curled up in the fetal position. Jessie fell into a nearby chair, still clinging to the fire extinguisher, curled up in the fetal position.

Jessie started laughing first, the way you do when you realize how ridiculously close you teeter on the edge of controlling or not controlling your world every day. Actually, maybe that’s not what she was laughing at. I think maybe, perhaps she was just laughing at me and the ridiculous plan I hatched to save our lives. “You know,” she mentioned by way of encouragement, “your plan to extinguish the fire with a big wet blanket and warn the neighbors was really very good…it would have been very useful if you’d been a farmwife in the 18th century.”

We both laughed then. How drastically different we are. How absurdly practical Jessie was to remember we have a fire extinguisher right outside our door…and HAVE had it there for as long as we’ve lived in this apartment. How downright ridiculous I was to think I could throw a microfiber polyester blanket over six foot flames and return with any of my own skin.

As we sat there, recovering, I started to worry about the grill and any flare-ups that might happen again. The propane tank sat there staring at me, all taunting and ticking-bomb-like. I imagine if this particular propane tank could speak, it would probably have some bizarre, haughty French accent. “Ha ha ha!” it would chuckle, gutterally “Approach me againe you naughty leetle ‘uman! Mais, oui: I will only liquefy you like thees tires beneeth me.”

It would probably have a stupid handlebar mustache and greasy hair too. Stupid propane. This is not the alcohol or the cake talking, neither. This is pure hatred for that trash-talking aluminum mistake that I so kindly brought in and gave shelter to for so long. And this is how the petit bastard repays me! By taking advantage of my early morning daze and anthropomorphizing itself! I think not!!! So I decided to take action. I called the fire department.

This was when I realized I was still in my black dress from the night before….so made the phone call, explained that there was no longer a fire but we were dealing with a verbally abusive French tank of gas. Fine, I left that part out, but as soon as I let them know there was no fire, but a danger of a re-flare-up, I ran upstairs and changed into pajamas so the brave firemen of Sierra Madre wouldn’t think they caught us in the middle of some early morning lesbian walk of shame since I appeared to be wearing clothes from a previous night’s soiree.

Eight of Sierra Madre’s bravest appeared about five minutes later and as I sat on the couch and watched them kick away bits of plastic that could now only be used for some poor modern art exhibit, I couldn’t tear my mind away from one little thought. If I hadn’t woken up this morning, if Jessie had been out of town or hadn’t had the wherewithal to get the fire extinguisher in time…I might have died. And my last night in this earthly existence would have been spent listening to VERY poor literature.